Everything I learned from non-musicians about being a better musician

After trying very hard to focus on the positives of getting through week 3 of Fresh Meat on Tuesday, I had a bit of a rough time at band on Wednesday. I’ve moved from playing the second part to sitting on the front desk, just for the next concert, and I’m finding playing solos stressful since I’m out of practice at playing on my own. We also had a guest conductor, who was excellent, but that’s always a little nerve-wracking. I started hyperventilating during a solo line in West Side Story which took me way out of tune and made me think about all the different kinds of things that go together to make it possible to stick at playing when you’re a slow-learner and an amateur.

It’s tempting to think it just comes together by accident, but I found myself remembering all of the supportive people I’ve learned from over the years., I realised that non-musicians may have taught me more about playing well than I realised. It’s not all about lessons, practice, and rehearsals.

1. Mistakes are not the end of the world

This one is obvious, right? I’ve made at least one mistake every time I’ve picked up my instrument, but I am almost always freaked out by them – especially when anyone else can hear, and even more if they comment.

Shiny trophy: Area Table Topics Contest, 2014

When I started public speaking with Aylesbury Speakers (part of Toastmasters International), I was worried about evaluation. Every speaker is evaluated and given feedback based on specific targets for the role or project and suggestions for improvement.

Hearing feedback from both established and new speakers has undoubtedly improved my presence, posture, and presentation when I speak in meetings, at church, and at work. It’s given me confidence that I can be in front of a room without freaking out, and more than anything it’s taught me that everyone has room for improvement and if I am not the most naturally gifted in the room I can still learn and work and get better. Listening to the feedback from others even won me an award, once.

2. Your true limits are way beyond where you think they are

When I was 11 I had an excellent PE teacher. Mrs. Jarrett was a big believer in knowing your body and its capabilities. I have always suffered from crippling period pain, but there was no pain she couldn’t teach me to stretch our or run off, and to this day I know that if I can bear it, 2 naproxen and an aerobic warmup will do more good than any amount of chocolate when Aunt Flo has her cramping face on. (She also gave me my one and only D on a report card, for dance, but it came with a 1 for effort, so that’s nice!)

Since Mrs. Jarrett’s dance lessons I’ve not been afraid to tell people I have period pain or anxiety and can’t do my best work. I’ve learned to take recovery breaks if I need them, and perhaps most importantly I’ve learned that the limit is always a bit further away than you think it is. When I think my facial muscles are done, and I’m too tired to try again, there’s always a bit more to give.

3. Your strengths matter more than your weaknesses

I used to think that you couldn’t be thought of as good at something unless you were an all-rounder, and that unless you found each skill equally easy you may as well not bother. It was my maths teacher that taught me otherwise. At school level, I generally did pretty well, but I found maths deeply frustrating. Sometimes I mastered a concept instantly (this seemed particularly true with more abstract maths) and sometimes I could practice endlessly but would never be able to memorise or reproduce the mechanic without the text book in front of me.

I was trying to explain this to my teacher one day, when she said, “You’ve got a flair for mathematics, but it would be easier if you didn’t need to be perfect”. After all, you can get an A in an exam without answering every question correctly.


I am better at rhythm than technique. I take notes well, and remember them, but can’t always apply them without significant personal practice. I’ll never be a virtuoso, but I can always work on improving tone and technique if I at least know I’m in the right place at the right time!

4. It’s not all about you

I am not my whole section, I am not the whole band. In a largeish section like the flute section of a concert band, you can afford to share the load out without feeling like you’re rubbish or lazy.

Cinderella (Feb 2007)

When I was 20, I wrote and produced pantomime (a queer version of Cinderella) which was an exercise in pressure and absurdity with a mix of complete and utter amateurs from the LGBT Society (including me), and some tremendous amateurs from the Drama Society and Stage Crew. Cinderella was my baby, I put my degree  and several friendships at risk to get it done, and worked on every detail I could manage. It was the get-in at the Bloomsbury Theatre before my friend Jen kindly-but-firmly took me aside and suggested that, just maybe, focusing the lamps was not my job right now and if I didn’t want each and every member of Stage Crew to tear me limb from limb I might like to stay out of the way until the technical rehearsal.

Point taken. I can only work to my own skills. Between us, as a section, we can decide to put some parts down to one player only, or dovetail long runs, and stagger breaths on long notes. There is nothing to be gained by wearing myself out trying to play for everyone and making it sound lousy in the process. (Incidentally, letting people get on with their own jobs is a lifesaving skill in ministry, too!)

5. More than anything else, it’s about banishing The Fear.

This was Wednesday’s insight. The idea that exercise

I do not believe in The Wall

requires mind-over-matter  is not new to me(especially in my case, getting out for a run at all is the last thing I usually want to do). I learned early on when I was training for the Royal Parks Half Marathon that walking in a long run was my worst enemy, not because of the effect on my body (which could be restorative), but because getting back up to a run was hard to do without feeling the need to drop down again every time it got hard.

When I started going for runs for fun, Emily bought a ‘Blerch’ t-shirt from The Oatmeal that says, “I do not believe in The Wall, I believe in The Blerch” (full comic). I wear the t-shirt and matching socks when I’m especially unkeen to go out or take on something new.

The new insight for me, when I was trying to convince myself to get through the solo line in One Hand, One Heart, was that I found myself thinking, “I got back on skates, I can do anything.” From there, it’s only a short leap to remembering the mantra that Derby is as much about mental toughness as physical fitness, and then it all clicked. If I can’t skate when my emotions are out of whack, why do I keep trying to play when I feel lousy without taking the time I need to calm down? After all, depression and anxiety take a huge physical toll.

So, next week when we get to the concert and I’m feeling anxious, I’m going to try and remember that my mistakes are unimportant, I can push on past my limits, I have strengths as well as weaknesses, it’s not about me, and I can do it if I can just keep calm and carry on.


Knit one, Pray one

The story of a knit object doesn’t begin with the first stitch cast on. It’s hard to know where it does begin, in truth. With the idea of this project, or with the first stitch this knitter created? Or earlier, in the Middle East, when the first true knitted fabrics were created? What is the heritage of this glove, or that shawl?

In a sense, a knitter’s own history and all knitting heritage is contained in any object. Under the literal woven yarn of the garment, toy, or blanket is the figurative thread that ties together the stories of creator and recipient. When I was an archaeology student, that peculiar sense of holding global and individual history in a created object never ceased to be compelling.

I’m very aware of that as a knitter, too, and it is one of the reasons I find great joy in creating gifts for other people. The crafty Pay-It-Forward that does the rounds on Facebook every year (in which folk commit to make presents for the first five people who comment on the post) is so much of a feature of my calendar that my wife has been known to try and forbid it in an attempt to fend off the inevitable moments towards the end of the year when I’m freaking out about the hat for someone I’ve not seen for five years being too big / too small / too green. I know it will happen, but I’m drawn to the challenge of creating just the right gift for someone who is important to me but a bit distant. In the time you spend creating for someone, they’re not distant at all.

Sometimes I see a pattern I want to make and instantly know who would love it (my Ravelry faves are full of these), but many of those never come to fruition. I’m much more likely to follow through on the projects where I start with the idea that Lovely Person would like a scarf, and it should probably be made from a cabled fabric. That is followed by hours of total immersion in Ravelry seeking yarn and patterns and pestering the long-suffering Mrs. H. to help me make every decision along the way. I might sometimes consult with the prospective recipient, but I’m v fond of giving Surprise Knitted Objects, so I’ll often take a risk rather than give the game away.

Assuming I’m not paralysed with indecision, and I can find a yarn and pattern that are both perfect, then I can finally cast on, and get to one of my favourite things: watching a 3d object emerge from sticks and string.

The best thing about all of this for me is how calming the process can be. I find it pretty easy to be in the moment with my yarncraft, especially a more complex pattern, and I have this amazing time to rest with my prayers and cares for the recipient, and work them into the fabric. It’s also one of the few times I really find it easy to sit with God. I’m often on the bus (in fact, I’m writing this seven hours into an eight-hour coach journey with two works-in-progress in my bag), so it turns my dependence on public transport into a blessing in my day.

Every year, I resolve to make more things for myself. I even broke my ‘yarn fast’ to spend my birthday money on some amazing wool to make myself a skirt this year, but since then I have cast on two gifts that were not in the Plan because when it really comes to it, making gifts makes me happy, and keeps me grounded.

If you’re a yarncrafter and you’ve never taken a risk on making a surprise present for a friend you miss, or that person you don’t know well who seems to be having a really pants time right now, take a risk. Search a pattern and cast on a Surprise Knitted Object for them, and just enjoy spending time with them; I hope it will be a blessing.

Many of my favourite ever projects have been gifts, here’s a few I had amazing fun with (in no special order):

More Tea, Vicar? (This  is the original, but I have made several for clergy friends.)

Cthulhu cozy (This was a request – so much fun to work out how to do it.)

Professor Steg (Every baby needs a dinosaur.)

Fab & Beautiful hat (Inspired by a church logo, my first charted-from-scratch colourwork.)

Boob hat (Of course! Inspired by an image that went viral after a series of women being asked to cover up whilst feeding.)

Piano scarf (The genius of this pattern! So boring to make, but so worth it.)

Piano gloves (These were hard to give away, love them so much.)

I’m v excited about my works in progress, and my project queue, but you’ll have to wait and see those. Watch this space.

The Royal Parks Half Marathon

I did it! I can’t quite believe it, but I really did it!

My time wasn’t on target, but when the time came I decided to take part against medical advice, so I was just pleased to cross the finishing line at all.

The Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon is a really fun run in many ways; it passes through some of my favourite parts of London and the atmosphere is incredible. Supporters from all the charities stand and cheer everyone passing, and if they see a name on a shirt they give that person a particular cheer. Volunteers from the major charities represented (including Mind and Help a Capital Child) staff the water / Lucozade stations, and this year at around the 9th and 10th miles there were even some wise people offering sugar in the form of jelly sweets.

It really was the perfect first half marathon in many ways; more-or-less flat, good road surfaces, genuinely enthusiastic marshals and supporters, and a really gorgeous time of year. The day was warm enough that it felt hot to run in, but the leaf-fall and cool wind were refreshing.

I was exhausted by the end, but the support from everyone who has sponsored me, and the YouthNet volunteers, staff and service users who cheered me on before and during the race. YouthNet do sterling work, and have done for sixteen years. If running until my whole body aches is what it takes to keep them going, then so be it.

Maybe, just maybe, I’ll do it again one day.

Pall Mall, nearly 6 miles in

Why I’m running 13.1 miles for YouthNet

On the 9th October, I’m running the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon for young people’s charity YouthNet. It’s been a really difficult period of training – recently interrupted for weeks at a time by ill health – and I’m working really hard to do this. 

In the grand scheme of things, I suppose not many people have heard of YouthNet, the charity that runs TheSite and Do-It, but they have an enormous, unseen impact. I started as a service user on TheSite ten years ago, so I feel like they’ve seen me through my awkward adolescence and out the other side.

I’m not going to claim to have had a terribly difficult life; I had a rough time with mental health difficulties as a teenager, which manifested in a number of different ways, but generally my family were supportive. I still needed somewhere more private and anonymous to talk and be listened to. A non-judgemental outlet is one of the most helpful things you can give to young people in these circumstances, and that is a huge part of the ethos of TheSite. The fact sheets present information without judgement, and the message board and live chat user communities provide a peer-support system that allows people to be anonymous and therefore more open than they would be among friends and family.

Back in 1996, when the charity was first forming, it was very difficult to find funding. The idea of a charity offering services entirely online seemed somewhat limited in the days of dial-up, and there were concerns about the sort of information children and young people might be able to access (predictably, early on the non-judgemental nature of the information TheSite.org provides has in the past riled the Daily Mail). Now, we can hardly imagine the world without the internet, and it seems obvious to me that young people who find it difficult to access support services turn to the internet for help. Indeed, TheSite.org appears in the top results on Google for issues such as unplanned pregnancy and self-harm. Online support isn’t the be-all and end-all for big issues but it can be very helpful in sign-posting people to local services, and persuading them to seek help.

I’m hoping to start training as a chat moderator in the next few weeks, to help facilitate the live chats. These days, a lot of people come to the community through the live chats and it’s inspiring to see how uplifting the community can be for people who are in real distress.

YouthNet makes a crucial difference, but as an online charity they go largely unnoticed by the wider community. As they celebrate their 16th birthday next month, they deserve wider recognition and I’m running all 13.1 miles of the Royal Parks Half Marathon for all the young people who need their support.

Please sponsor me £2 if you can!

Running update: 6 months to go!

So I’m just finishing the fourth week of training now and I’m not doing too badly.

I’m working on an intervals plan at the moment (based on Couch to 5k in 6 weeks), but the intervals are huge. (This week; 5 mins walk, 18 mins run, 2 mins walk, 18 mins run, 2 mins walk.) I’m doing well at it but unfortunately, the programme I’m working from now (the Fun Run app for BlackBerry) only goes up to 5k. I’m going to pick up the 10k plan from Running Made Easy,  which uses much shorter intervals. I’ll let you know how I get on with that.

At the end of week 4 I’m up to 3.6 miles (5.8km) and seriously considering entering the Penn Seven this year for Iain Rennie Hospice at Home.

Run, run, run….

So, here’s a silly thing I did.

I have signed up to run* the Royal Parks Half Marathon in October for the fabulous YouthNet. They’ve been online since 1997 offering impartial advice and support to young people in Britain (primarily) and worldwide. I’ve made some good friends through volunteering for the Respect? campaign run with the British Youth Council and within the community of service users.

I wanted to run in the Penn 7 last year for the Ian Rennie Hospice at Home, and I would still like to raise funds for them in the future, but I wasn’t well for a time and wasn’t able to train for it.

There will be a team of us going – not all running for the same charity – and although I don’t expect us to keep up the same pace all the way it will be nice to have people at the starting line.

I went for my first run this morning and whilst it was not great, I haven’t run properly for about 2 years so I’m not despairing just yet. I plan to run at least 3 times a week during Lent – more if I can, as it’s also the Easter vac – and keep working slowly up to my goal. It won’t be easy, but I know running does my brain and body good and I do love a challenge!

Here is my fundraising page on JustGiving, I have pledged to raise £500 for YouthNet. If 200 people sponsor me £2.50, I’ll get there.

*Or at least complete!

Ash Wednesday

I don’t usually feel challenged by Ash Wednesday. Some years, I think I’ve let it go by with no more than a fifteen minute stop in at church and intense cravings for whatever I’ve given up for Lent!

This year has been somewhat different. It is probably partly the environment we’re in here, constantly focussed on the church calendar and the rhythm of community. Whatever it is, I am beginning to realise that I have in my life oversimplified the idea of preparation for festivals, and seasons like Lent and Advent.

If I do one thing differently this year, it will be to listen to the wisdom around me and to try and intentionally experience Lent. I am also intending to run before Mass at least three times a week and to be in touch with my body as with as my spiritual needs.

I hope your Lenten journey is a fulfilling one.


Dad at the Thames with Andante, enjoying the sunshine.

I don’t know what it is about canals, but I really love them. I think it’s something to do with the fact that they are such an important part of the cityscape in Britain. In London especially, you can walk along the canal for a while and forget where you are. It’s a different way to see the architecture and you get a real sense of what it was like when the city centred around the waterways and the warehouses. There’s something creepy about all the abandoned warehouses, particularly around Camden, but they’re also really picturesque and imposing.

I also love looking at boat names. Mum and Dad’s is called Andante (‘walking’ in Italian, musical term for ‘walking pace’), because that’s the name they inherited but Mum wants to call it Moby Duck. Then there’s all the retirement boats called things like Dunworkin’, the boats named after poems (we once took a boat out for a weekend called Macavity), or those that seem to be named after family members.

I went for my first run in my bid to do 7 miles for Iain Rennie Hospice at Home on the 20th June (Fathers’ Day), and managed about 4km in 30 minutes, which isn’t too bad. I ran along from Thornhill Road near Kings Cross past St. Pancras and up to Camden Road. I haven’t run properly since October but I need to get back into doing intervals and increasing daily until I’m ready. According to a training guide Mum has, I should have plenty of time to get to the point I can run 10km (which is ≈ 7 miles).

I think I might start walking to church that way, it’s really not far and I’ll take some photos to plague you all with.

Run, Rowley, run, Rowley, run, run, run….

Right, I have a Cunning Plan. As many of you know, my Grandad sadly died on Valentine’s Day this year. He had been suffering from pulmonary fibrosis for a couple of years and in the last 5-6 months he and Grandma were lucky to have excellent support from Iain Rennie Hospice at Home, who provided a hospital bed, nursing care and emergency doctors if needed. Three of the nurses then came to the funeral, and were kind enough to tell us that they had enjoyed Grandad’s company.

We were so lucky that Grandad had all that support without needing to leave Grandma and their home, so I’ve decided to do something for them and I will commit to at least enter the Penn and Tylers Green Fun Run (3.5 miles), but aim to enter the Penn 7 (7 miles), both of which are held on Father’s Day each year in aid of Iain Rennie.

I will be starting with a run tomorrow morning. Wish me luck!